Material Culture

The Radical History of a Bed Sheet

This linen bed-sheet, which dates to c.1716-30, now lies in the textile collections of the Museum of London (see Figure 1). It has never been, and perhaps will never be, displayed within the museum due to the fragility of its base materials.

Figure 1: linen bed sheet, 34.63, © Museum of London.

The sheet’s confinement may not appear at first glance to be a great loss to public history. It is, after all, a fairly mundane household object whose size, colour and thread count are unremarkable for its era. The sheet’s survival is, however, rare and the delicate cross-stitch embroidery inscription that features on its lower part powerfully signals its unique biography.

The sheet off my dear x dear Lord’s Bed in the wretched Tower of London, February 1716
(see Figure 2).

Even more remarkable than the emotive words conveyed by the seamstress is the fact that she threaded her needle with two types of human hair. The hair likely combined locks of her own, which were intertwined with the golden hair of her recently deceased husband (see Figure 3). This embroidery, created by Anna Maria Radcliffe, countess of Derwentwater, transformed this ordinary bed-sheet into an emotive agent of religious devotion and political agitation. Her painstaking work also ensured the sheet’s long-term survival as it passed through multiple generations of Jacobite activists and supporters, and latterly, into the hands of private collectors, textile curators and historians.

The sheet’s longevity and radical agency is intimately linked to its first user. The hair inscription tells us that this textile once covered the body of James Radcliffe, third earl of Derwentwater, as he lay in the Tower of London awaiting execution for his part in the failed Jacobite uprising of 1715. Radcliffe was beheaded on Tower Hill on 24 February 1716. He quickly became the focus of an informal cult of devotion after his death, which aimed to secure his name within the annals of Catholic martyrdom, to honour his memory, and to promote the Stuart cause for political restoration in the British Isles.

Figure 2: cross-stitch inscription from linen bed sheet, 34.63,© Museum of London.

The tragic sacrifice made by the young and handsome James Radcliffe, who was just twenty-six years old at the time of his death, was long lasting. He was lamented in a series of popular ballads and poems, in Sir Walter Scott’s tales of Scottish history, and in his best-selling novel Rob Roy (1817).* James Radcliffe’s fate is well known, but the person who most lamented his death and who played the leading role in ensuring his long-term veneration has been largely unnoticed by historians; it is her story that the bed-sheet allows us to reveal for the first time.

Spurred on by her grief in the aftermath of her husband’s execution, Anna Maria Radcliffe sourced, circulated and crafted a range of objects that testified to her husband’s virtue, heroism and sanctity. Despite the bill of attainder brought against James Radcliffe, which ensured that his personal goods and estates were forfeited to the crown, his widow acquired his execution outfit, the devotional guide that he had used to prepare his soul in the Tower, and the letters that he sent to family and friends on the eve of his death. Anna Maria secured a safe place for these objects with her only daughter, and she marked the devotional guide and letters with her own hand to establish their provenance. Most crucially of all, she acquired her husband’s body, including his severed head, which was delivered to her temporary home at Dagenham Park. It was here that she likely cut her husband’s hair that would later be used to create the bed-sheet’s inscription before James Radcliffe’s body was embalmed and prepared for burial.

Figure 3: Microscopic analysis of hair sample, © Museum of London

In 1721 Anna Maria moved to Brussels with her children and it was here that she likely found the time and solitude to embroider the bed sheet’s intricate decoration, which would have taken months or even years for a single seamstress to create. For Anna Maria, the process of embroidering the sheet likely structured and eased her mourning. The intricate stitch work would have afforded hours of peaceful contemplation. Regular handling of the smooth stiff linen likely generated a sequence of emotional states from a sense of devastating loss, to consolatory recollections of marital intimacy, to hopes of future reconciliation with her husband in the next life. She may have acquired assistance with her project from the nuns at the English Augustinian convent known as St. Monica’s in nearby Louvain, who were highly skilled in needlework. The countess was deeply attached to the convent, to which she paid weekly visits, and it was here that her husband’s aunts, Catherine and Elizabeth Radcliffe, resided after they were professed as choir nuns in 1688.

It is highly likely that the bed sheet was venerated as a holy relic at St. Monica’s after Anna Maria’s premature death from smallpox in 1723. The lower border featuring the hair-work, love heart and white-work embroidery is noticeably different in shade than the rest of the sheet, which hints that it was exposed to indoor light rather than sunlight. The darker marks beside the hair-work are also consistent with the residue of burning candles. These marks indicate that the sheet may have been folded, with the lower portion on display, possibly in a frame, with candles surrounding it. If the sheet were displayed in this manner, as a focus for spiritual devotion, it offered a highly visceral medium for the nuns to strengthen their faith by contemplating the bloody sacrifices of their peers in defence of the Catholic faith, and in support of the Stuart claim to the British throne. Exiled convents, including St. Monica’s, played a critical role in safeguarding, circulating and venerating the relics of Jacobite martyrs, which allowed them to be active participants in the wider Jacobite cause.

Anna Maria Radcliffe thus created a bed sheet that functioned as an instrument of personal and communal memory, and as an agent of religious and political resistance. The material culture of Jacobitism has attracted the interest of historians in recent years, yet the commanding role played by household objects, by women, and by emotions in sustaining the faith of a dispersed and embattled religious community has been largely overlooked. This remarkable bed sheet was not simply an isolated repository of a widow’s grief but something that shaped and reflected the affections, ambitions and actions of a broader transnational movement of resistance. The sheet’s survival testifies to its unique emotional power and to its capacity to transport memories (and indeed body parts) across time and space.

A lengthier piece on the radical history of the bed sheet by Sasha Handley will appear in History Workshop Journal issue 85, to be published in Spring 2018. 

* ‘An Aerostick on the right honourable James Earl of Derwentwater’, 23 October 1895, Townsley MSS, Ushaw College, P36a. Murray Pittock, Poetry and Jacobite Politics in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp.67-8. ‘To the pious and Immortal memory of the R. Honble James Earl of Derwintwater, who was beheaded on Tower Hill February 24th 1715.6’, Essex County Record Office, D/DP F277. Vladimir Jankovic, ‘The politics of sky battles in early Hanoverian Britain,’ Journal of British Studies 41:4, 2002, 429-459.

** To achieve these results, three hair samples were taken from the reverse of the bed sheet. They were compared with each other and with a modern specimen of human head hair in a Quanta 250 Field Emission Gun Scanning Electron Microscope. The analysis was undertaken by the author in collaboration with Professor Andrew Chamberlain and Dr. Toby Starborg at the University of Manchester.


  1. I’d like to thank you for the efforts you have put in penning
    this site. I am hoping to view the same high-grade content
    by you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has inspired me to get
    my own blog now 😉

    1. Thank you, that’s very kind! I’m so pleased that the article has inspired you to get creative! Best of luck with that, Sasha

  2. While reading the article, I could envision the writer sitting alone thinking. I can tell that you worked very hard on this article. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Alice, it’s great to hear that you enjoyed the piece, and that it provoked some thoughts for you. It was hard work to put together, but so very interesting! Thanks again for getting in touch, Sasha

  4. I was wondering if there was any available information on the more mundane aspects of this sheet? Such as its size and the construction of the sheet as a whole? What hems/seams were used?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *